Fall is the perfect time for stargazing. With the convenience of early sunsets (you don’t have to stay up so late) and cool-but-not-bone-chilling evenings (you won’t need a parka), you can easily explore the splendor of the nighttime sky from home. And it doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive.
Ready to get started with backyard astronomy? Here’s how:
You Don’t Actually Have to Buy Anything
Try exploring the sky using just your eyes. Certain events, like meteor showers or the Northern Lights, don’t require optical aid at all (in fact, it’s a detriment). You can also observe the gradual motion of the planets (those closer to the sun, like Venus, move more quickly than those farther away, like Mars) and learn the basic constellations by using only your eyes.
A great family project is to learn how to use the Big Dipper as a pointer to help you find the North Star (Polaris) and get a little feel for how centuries of explorers have navigated at night. If the glare of city lights interferes with your view (a common problem known as light pollution), track down a more rural viewing site.
If You Do Buy Something, It Doesn’t Have To Be Fancy
To go farther than your own eyes can see, you will need to obtain some kind of optical aid. A simple pair of binoculars can open up a surprising number of options, including surface details on the moon, such as ray craters (look for those during a full moon), and the flat, darker-colored “mares” (Latin for “seas” but completely dry, like all of the moon).
A not-so-simple pair of binoculars, like this Space Navigator™ Satellite Finding model, can actually help you to locate and track satellites, the space station, and constellations via an app you install on your cell phone.
Whichever binoculars you choose, you’ll be able to see far more faint stars than what are visible to your naked eye, and you can look for “fuzzy” objects like nebula and comets. With binoculars, you can also observe double or “binary” stars (there’s one in the Big Dipper … can you find it?).
A Telescope: Your Gateway to the Skies
To truly experience the night sky and feel like a real astronomer, invest in a telescope. Start out with a small, refracting (uses lenses to magnify light) or reflecting (uses mirrors) telescope with a main lens or mirror less than 80mm wide. By starting small, you can keep the cost and weight of the telescope more reasonable, and it may be all you will ever need.
A small telescope can give you a spectacular view of the moon and allow you to explore other planets as well. Jupiter is a very popular target for small telescopes. Depending on conditions, you may be able to see bands of clouds and Jupiter’s four major moons. Saturn, though a bit smaller and farther away from Earth, is also always a hit with its fantastic rings. Mars is much more of a challenge to view with a small telescope, and it will likely look like just a tiny red dot. Venus is interesting because it goes through phases sort of like the moon’s.
What You Can’t See
For all of the exciting objects available to the beginner using simple equipment, some things will be out of reach, so be sure to go into this adventure with realistic expectations:
- Don’t expect Hubble-quality views.Your telescope’s images are going to appear smaller, dimmer, less colorful (expect to see a lot of gray), and fuzzier than the space images you see in the news.
- No, you can’t see Neil Armstrong’s footprints!Even when you’re observing something impressive like the moon, it’s still very far away.
- Some things just can’t be seen.You won’t be able to see extremely faint objects like Pluto—or black holes, which aren’t called “black” for nothing.
Still, there’s something about observing space with your own eyes that a photograph can’t quite capture. And that is what keeps people coming back to the night sky year after year.
Good luck, and may you have clear skies!
— Daniel Johnson
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